Sixtytwo of the sixtythree short books that make up the Mishna are legal texts. For example, Brakhot (Blessings), the Mishna's opening tractate, delineates the appropriate blessings for various occasions. The tractate Shabbat specifies, as one would expect, the laws of the Sabbath. The only tractate of the sixtythree that does not deal with laws is called Pirkei Avot (usually translated as Ethics of the Fathers) and it is the "Bartlett's" of Judaism. Pirkei Avot transmits the favorite moral advice and insights of the leading rabbinic scholars of different generations.
The quotes found in Pirkei Avot generally are spiritual and edifying, but they can also be practical. Two thousand years ago, Ben Zoma rendered what remains, in my opinion, the best definition of happiness. "Who is rich? He who is happy with what he has" (4:1). Hillel is frequently cited in Pirkei Avot. He is best known for "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?" (1:14). The last sentence should logically read who am I? But as Professor Louis Kaplan taught: "If you are only for yourself, you cease to be a real human being, and you become no longer a who, but a what." Hillel concludes the sentence with a thought that was borrowed two millennia later by President Ronald Reagan, who cited the sage's words while trying to push through urgently needed economic reforms: "And if not now, when?"
Jewish tradition encourages the study of one chapter of Ethics of the Fathers each Sabbath afternoon in the spring and summer months. As a result, religious Jews have been deeply influenced by the book, since they review it several times each year.
Because its reasoning is direct, and largely based on human experience, Pirkei Avot is the most accessible of the books making up the Oral Law. It certainly is the handiest guide to Jewish ethics. In recent years, a three volume English commentary on Pirkei Avot, Irving Bunim's Ethics from Sinai, has helped revive and deepen study of the book among traditional Jews. But Bunim's is only one of many commentaries that have been published on Pirkei Avot. In this century alone, R. Travers Herford, a Christian religious scholar, published one that was intended in large measure to demonstrate to other Christians that the rabbis of the Talmud were deeply concerned with ethical questions. The late Chief Rabbi of England, Joseph Hertz, published another commentary in a prayerbook he translated. More recently, Reuven Bulka, a Canadian rabbi and a recognized scholar on psychology, has produced a commentary, As a Tree by the Waters, in which psychological insights are used to deepen the reader's understanding of the text.
The text of Pirkei Avot can be found in most prayerbooks, following the Sabbath afternoon service.
The following are some characteristic teachings of Pirkei Avot:
Shammai taught: "Say little and do much" (1:15).
Hillel taught: "Don't judge your fellowman until you are in his place . . . and don't say I will study when I have time, lest you never find the time" (2:4).
Hillel taught: "A person who is [too] shy [to ask questions] will never learn, and a teacher who is too strict cannot teach . . . and in a place where there are no men, strive to be a man" (2:5).
Rabbi Tarfon taught: "It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either" (2:16).
Rabbi Chanina taught: "Pray for the welfare of the government, for without fear of governmental authorities people would swallow each other alive" (3:2).
Ben Zoma taught: "Who is wise? He who learns from every man.... Who is a hero? He who controls his passions" (4:1).
Sources: Joseph Telushkin. Jewish Literacy. NY: William Morrow and Co., 1991. Reprinted by permission of the author.